The Left-Hemisphere to Right-Hemisphere Shift: Pathways for Change

Posted May 18, 2022 | Sustainability |
The Left-Hemisphere to Right-Hemisphere Shift: Pathways for Change

As I wrote in The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, business, among other institutions, has an especially important role in enabling the shift from left-hemisphere domination to right-hemisphere domination. The basic strategy is obvious: strengthen the right hemisphere and inhibit the left in anyone the business can reach.

It is worth repeating the reason why. The right hemi­sphere of the metaphoric brain of firms will track and reflect changes in its employees’ brains, so firms must introduce new practices requiring mastery of the right hemisphere. As that shift occurs, the negative conse­quences of the firm’s actions should begin to abate. Because employees’ bodies and brains are always part of them, benefits will spill over beyond the workplace: more caring, more effectiveness, and, eventually, the emergence of flourishing. In any case, businesses should continue to become more eco-efficient and innovative while understanding that these achieve­ments will not address the systemic nature of unsustainability.

In this Advisor, I briefly outline a few pathways for change (part of shifting from left to right is to stop looking to experts for answers). The first step is to suspend your old beliefs long enough to let these new, challenging ideas about the brain enter. If you do, I am confident you will be as equally stunned by their power to understand and create as I have been.


Mindfulness practices strengthen the right hemisphere while shutting down the left. Some businesses have started on this path, not for the cognitive impact directly, but because mindfulness practices can be broadly beneficial. Benefits include sharper reflection and focus, improved stress management, fewer sick days, more employee engagement, higher levels of trust, and greater mental agility.

Importantly, they can enhance social responsibility, a form of caring that transcends profit. Installing and practicing mindfulness is truly a win-win-win game. The individual members of the firm will lead less stressful and more productive lives, the firm will prosper, and the social and environmental worlds will be better taken care of.

Pragmatic Practices

We must also begin or increase the use of pragmatic decision-making and problem-solving systems. Prag­matic inquiry is a way to connect to the world and care for what you find out there. As noted above, pragmatic inquiry/thinking relies on the connectedness of the right hemisphere to ensure that any actions reflect the immediate external world, beyond facts and theories abstracted from past experience.

Programs like TPS or its generic version, Lean thinking, include practices that have been tested. Users of the firm’s offerings and others with concerns about them should be involved in their design so that the products serve what the users care about, not some manufac­tured need. Eventually, these practices will become part of the culture of the firm, but they should never be allowed to fade into the background where the left brain lurks.

Business Strategy

Over time, businesses must offer goods and services explicitly designed to support the right hemisphere’s caring twin, balanced against what is now produced largely for the left hemisphere’s self-interested twin. The correct balance point between the two twins will appear when the global system regains its ability to accommodate the human species. 

Growth for growth’s sake can no longer hide in the cloth of sustainability. The mantra “What gets measured gets managed” must give way to calls for qualitative, systemic, normative indicators. The quality, not the quantity, of life matters. The proper use of sustainability is such a quality — the ability of a living system to survive from day to day, from year to year, or, for the planet, from epoch to epoch. Humans, with their enhanced consciousness and linguistic capabilities, can strive for the more explicit quality of flourishing, which offers a normative target for guiding individuals and for designing institutions and their activities. 

[For more from the author on this topic, see: “To Transform the System, Change Our Brains.”]

About The Author
John Ehrenfeld
John R. Ehrenfeld returned to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in 1985 after a long career in the environmental field. He retired in 2000 as Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. Following that, Dr. Ehrenfeld served until 2009 as Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. He is the author of The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World;… Read More